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Autistic burnout - a tech sector lived experience

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett February 27, 2023
Summary:
The first of a two-part series exploring the rarely-discussed phenomenon of autistic burnout, the symptoms and the witness of a tech executive who has experienced it.

neurodiversity
(Pixabay)

Autistic burnout is a real, and unfortunately quite common, occurrence - despite being little known and rarely discussed outside of neurodiverse circles.

But after conducting research into the “syndrome” in 2020, Dr Dora Raymaker, Research Assistant Professor at Portland State University, came up with the following (unofficial) definition, indicating that it resulted from:

Chronic life stress and a mismatch of expectations and abilities without adequate supports. It is characterised by pervasive, long-term (typically 3+ months) exhaustion, loss of function, and reduced tolerance to stimulus.

This description is quite different from burnout as defined by the World Health Organization which, rather than being derived from “chronic life stress”, is linked to “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. It also manifests differently, resulting in people:

  • Feeling exhausted or depleted of energy
  • Feeling increasingly mentally distant from their job, negative or cynical towards it
  • Becoming less effective professionally.

The symptoms of autistic burnout

By way of contrast, autistic burnout symptoms, as laid out in a useful checklist by clinical psychologist and creator of the Autistic Burnout Recovery Programme Dr Alice Nicholls, include situations in which people:

  • Find it hard to think or hit upon the right words
  • Experience difficulties in switching between tasks
  • Have trouble thinking of how to respond when others talk to them
  • Undergo an increased number of meltdowns or shutdowns
  • Engage in more stimming (repetitive or unusual body movement or noises) than usual.

Russell Botting is lead job coach at Auticon, an IT consultancy that exclusively employs autistic professionals. He points out that, as with traditional burnout, people experiencing autistic burnout are likely to show changes in behaviour, although this will vary from individual to individual:

Quantifiable things that you might notice include emotional dysregulation, such as extreme reactions or being less expressive. Self-care tends to go downhill, so for example, people may stop eating as much. There may be increased irritability, less interaction in meetings and feelings of low motivation, which may look like people aren’t getting on with their work or more prompting is required to hit deadlines. So the symptoms can be similar to regular burnout but what causes them is different.

The causes of autistic burnout

Richmal Maybank, Employer Engagement Manager at the UK’s National Autistic Society, clarifies what these causes can be:

Autistic burnout varies from person to person. People often also have co-morbidities, such as ADHD, which means everyone reacts in a different way. They also often hold things together at work, which can lead to their quality of life at home being affected. But there can be a lot of external factors that lead to problems, such as overwhelming sensory stimuli, which include smells, light or noise, particularly in an open-plan office. This creates a lot of stress as many workplaces are not designed with wellbeing in mind.

Communicating and interacting with others can likewise prove to be another big challenge. Richmal explains:

It can be very stressful to decode what people are asking of you. Autistic people tend to be perfectionists, so they might overwork or feel overwhelmed or be unsure of what’s expected of them. Many struggle with social nuances, such as unwritten rules, which can be complex. People don’t explain them and so we often struggle to decode them ourselves, which takes longer. This means people can get into trouble or it may impact their relationships with colleagues. It can also result in burnout as people may feel threatened, experience perceived or actual bullying, or feel others are being unkind.

Autistic burnout - the lived experience

One person who has experienced what he describes as “crash cycles” as a result of such stresses is Michael Queenan, Co-founder and Chief Executive of data services integrator, Nephos Technologies.

He describes being autistic as something that defines, and feeds into, every area of his life as it is “the way I process data and interact with the world”, which is very different from that of neurotypical people. As a result, he sees his autism as both his “superpower” and his “nemesis”. Although Queenan acknowledges his experience is inevitably different to other autistic people’s, he also points out that:

As a general rule, autistic people are very structured and logical people, to the extreme. To me, there’s an optimal way of doing everything, such as parking the car or cooking dinner - which my wife hates. The order that I do things in all make logical sense but if something happens outside of that and I’m in situations I can’t control, the mental discomfort is so strong that my brain can’t cope with it and it causes me physical discomfort. I used to rub my legs so hard, I’d put holes in my trousers.

On the 'superpower' side of things, being autistic, for him, means:

I can take in vast amounts of information, process it and create the most logical path forward with that information. It’s a massive superpower when running a company because it’s about using data to make the best decision. I never question if I’ve made the wrong decision because I’ve made it with the best data available to me. I could change the decision tomorrow based on new data, but then I just do it and move on. It’s a strength in a leader as everyone has complete faith that I’m making the best decision I can at the time. So it’s a massive power if you’re senior, but it’s horrible if you’re junior….as traditional companies aren’t set up for random employees to question the direction of senior management.

Exploring the downsides

Other drawbacks, says Queenan, derive from the fact that his brain works like a “probabilistic decision tree” in which he takes all the possible outcomes of a situation based on the information available to him and assigns different weights to them:

It means my brain processes data 24x7, which isn’t easy as there’s always a problem and my brain is always trying to solve it. It’s just the way it works but it leads to exhaustion, especially when you run a company as it’s often not just simple day-to-day stuff that you have to deal with. Problems come to you when the senior management team can’t deal with things themselves and so they bring it to you to sort out. So there’s constant noise and thinking things through to the nth degree.

As a result, the “crash cycles” occur, says Queenan, because:

Our nervous systems are fried. Everyone has multiple systems, so emotional, physical and nervous systems. Neurotypical people generally tire one out at a time, so for example, if they run too much, the physical system will be tired. But autistic people run on their nervous systems all the time and so are effectively chewing through it. The body is constantly producing adrenalin as we’re in fight or flight mode all the time, so we crash. But the crashes happen more frequently and get harder over time, which means we get wiped out - and many people don’t understand to quite what extent.

The end result of this scenario is that, “if you get into a bad place”, the crashes can start taking place more consistently and frequently, which is a clear sign that action needs to be taken.

 

In the second part of this feature, we explore what employers can do to support their autistic workers in order to prevent burnout, and also what autistic workers can do to help themselves.

 

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